Literature reviews represent the summary and advancement of scholarly conversation. I recognize that readers coming to this blog by chance may find it strange that I'd dedicate a post to this specialized component of academic writing, but I hope that anyone who attempts scholarly prose, from a brief course paper to a dissertation, may find some utility in this entry: an introduction to the purpose of literature reviews.
Right away let me clarify some biases that shape this introduction. My primary academic audience is a community of scholars producing communication research. I offer no guarantees that this advice is suitable for other audiences. Moreover, this way of writing a literature review emerges from my own peculiar sensibilities. Even within the field of communication studies, one may find a wide range of philosophies toward this topic. Those biases noted, let us start with the fundamentals.
When writing a piece of academic prose, a literature review helps you position your hypothesis or research question within a larger collection of scholarly efforts. Writing a literature review situates you in that scholarly conversation, either as someone who seeks to continue an existing thread or as someone who wishes to propose a new thread. In explaining this topic to my classes over the years, I've found that students frequently struggle with this component of academic writing, so let me provide a narrative to illustrate this practice.
Imagine that you and a shy friend are attending a party tonight. You are comfortable with social get-togethers, you chat confidently with friends and strangers, but your friend is nervous. He knows most of the folks planning to attend, but he's still doubtful about being accepted at the party. Your shy friend asks you to arrive at the party a half-hour earlier than he and check out the social scene. Using your mobile phone you'll tell him about the conversations taking place so that your friend can arrive with something to say. You think it's a pretty strange plan, but you're happy to help your friend enter the social scene, so you agree.
As promised, you show up earlier than your friend. Immediately you scope out the room. At first the party is a loud collection of overlapping sounds; it's all a bit overwhelming. But your social instincts help you analyze the scene. Wandering about, sipping a soda and listening to the chatter, you discover that the party contains three distinct groups of conversation, as well as some randomly placed folks sitting alone and grooving to the music. Your friend said something about wanting to join a small group, so you focus your attention on the three most identifiable sets of conversation. You stand close enough to listen without distracting the participants.
The groups represent distinct types of conversation. The first group is an amiable collection of young folks who stand in the kitchen, chatting about classic movies. Jim starts by celebrating Citizen Kane. Jenny follows up with remarks about The Godfather. Jared then begins to explain the under-appreciated virtues of Hail to the Chimp. The participants are loud and excited, and they seem to welcome your presence. You listen for a while and then walk into the living room to join the second group. These are somewhat older folks, at ease with each other even as they discuss their topic intensely. This second group is debating the merits of the new Lady Gaga album. Listening to their discussion, it is clear that the group is evenly split between two dominant speakers, John and Jane. John says the album is excellent; Jane says it's trash. Both debaters and their friends use lots of inside jokes and refer to previous conversations. You can tell this group has had similar arguments for years. You eavesdrop without difficulty since no one seems to recognize your presence, but eventually you walk away toward the porch. There, the third group is drinking and laughing boisterously. You listen for a while, but the group doesn't seem to be talking about anything interesting; they're just cracking jokes. After a while you find a quiet corner and open your mobile phone.
You call your friend and say something like this: "The party's really fun. You should have no problem fitting in. Just remember: right now there are three basic groups. The folks in the kitchen are talking about movies. As you'd guess, Jim is convinced that Citizen Kane is the best movie of all time, though Jenny said some interesting things about The Godfather. Watch out for Jared, though. I think he's had a few too many beers. Just plan to talk about classic movies and you'll fit in. Or if you'd rather talk about music, you'll find John and Jane debating new albums yet again. Tonight they're talking about that awful new Lady Gaga album. As you'd guess, John loves it and Jane hates it. They're having an intense discussion, so listen for a bit to catch the flow before you join in. Oh, and avoid the porch crowd. They're having fun, but they're not saying anything interesting. Just come to the party ready to talk about movies or music and you'll fit in just fine."
Leaving our narrative example we can draw some conclusions about the nature of a literature review and how this component of academic writing fits into the larger goal of scholarship. Like a party, a scholarly community is composed of many people talking at the same time. Literature reviews organize that complex discourse into a number of related conversations. Following the party example, one might write a literature review that summarizes two particularly interesting conversations about movies and music. Certainly a formal literature review will be organized around more related and specialized scholarly conversations. But this example of movies and music illustrates how any conversation is marked by its distinction from other conversations and by its sense of internal cohesion.
What kind of internal cohesion do we find in these examples? The movie conversation is organized chronologically within a category of classics, from Citizen Kane to Hail to the Chimp. If the chat comments were actually scholarly articles you might cite the authors who refer to these movies, offering a quote or paraphrase that summarizes what they say. You might then conclude that section of your literature review by evaluating whether Hail to the Chimp belongs in this conversation at all. The music conversation is organized as a debate between two dominant experts and their partisans. If their comments represent competing scholarly schools of thought you have several options. You might simply compare and contrast the opposing points of view, again by citing major ideas and their originating authors. You might also take a side, becoming a partisan for one position or another. Or you might comment on how both sides of the debate are missing an important idea (after offering some sense of what is being said). Given the nature of the second group, though, you'll need to be careful when engaging their ideas. The rules for participating in long-standing debates tend to be more rigidly defined than in newer conversations.
Of course you won't necessarily cite everything you read, just like you won't chat with everyone you meet at a party. Within any party or scholarly discourse you may find other groups that are loud but not interesting. You can decide whether their conversations are worth engaging or whether they should be ignored. Similarly, at any party or scholarly discourse you will find loners: individuals who have not joined a group either by choice or consensus. Some folks don't care to join groups. Other folks can't find groups to accept them. When writing a literature review, it's your choice whether you wish to engage their ideas or ignore them. The former option is most common, since groups are easiest to navigate when attending a party or attempting a literature review. But remember, the loners in both examples can sometimes have the most interesting things to say.
Certainly there's much more to say about an ideal literature review than can be found in this brief note. One must consider whether a review should be organized by topic thread or by individual citation. I choose the former, but many other writers prefer the latter. One must also consider style-specific rules of citation. I prefer APA but many scholars write in MLA, Chicago, or other styles. Finally, one must consider how much detail to offer with each citation. I prefer a quote or paraphrase for most references. But some scholars are happy to lump dozens of names together with little context other than chronology. Thus we have certainly not exhausted this topic. However, it's important to begin with the fundamentals. Literature reviews challenge you to enter a scholarly conversation, make sense of the important themes and participants, and convey that sense-making to others who may follow your own scholarly efforts. Start with that perspective and you might even enjoy this component of academic writing.